by Joe Bleeden
When Benny Goodman hired Peggy Lee in the 1940s, all he told her was, “Come to work, and wear something pretty.”
Peggy has been working ever since – and always wears something pretty.
Duke Ellington nicknamed her “The Queen.” William B. Williams, a New York-based disk jockey, called her “The Elegant One.” Her enormous catalogue of recordings is filled with gems. Due to a series of illnesses, her public appearances are not as often as they once were, but when she does appear – such as earlier this year at the annual Big Band gathering at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Los Angeles – it is memorable. She was beautifully attired, even though accompanied by an ever-present oxygen tank.
Before there was a Peggy Lee, there was Norma Deloris Egstrom, born in Jamestown, North Dakota on May 26, 1920. Her father Olaf was a railway station agent; she had six brothers and sisters. She took to musical expression right away – “My sister and I hummed before we learned to talk,” she says. At age ten, she knew she wanted to sing professionally, and four years later was singing with Doc Haines and his orchestra, making personal appearances and heard over Valley City radio station KVOC. A program director at a Fargo, North Dakota radio station started calling her Peggy Lee – he thought it was a better sound – and she was off and running.
Sixty years later, Lee ranks in the very upper echelon of her generation of surviving American musical performers, slightly below Sinatra perhaps but at least on par with Doris Day. (Everyone has their favourite.) Lee remains a shining beacon of quality and taste, a potent reminder of just how marvellous popular music can be. Her unique, smoldering styling has graced 59 original albums and 631 song titles – about one-fifth of those written by herself. In total, she has appeared on 105 recorded albums. Songs such as “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” are classics, and there were memorable duets with Bing Crosby on “Watermelon Weather” and “The Possibility’s There” in 1955.
Always, there was a sense of class, of glamour. When Lee was at her peak in clubs, she would invest $30,000 preparing a show. That’s not a lot in today’s terms, but fifty and forty years ago it kept her in wonderful gowns – “looking pretty,” as Benny Goodman has advised.
Among her peers she has always been viewed with supreme respect. Even Richard Rodgers, who was notoriously particular about the treatment of his material, was impressed enough to send her a telegram after hearing her rendition of his song “Lover.” It read: “You interpret my songs any way you like. I trust your taste.”
Frank Sinatra says of Lee: “Her talent should be studied by all vocalists. Her regal presence is pure elegance and charm.”
Like Sinatra, Lee’s appearances on film earned her recognition beyond her value as a box-office attraction. She was a good actress, and even received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 1956 for Pete Kelly’s Blues.
The Disney studio scored a coup when it contracted Lee to write the score for the memorable Lady and the Tramp. Says Lee, “It was a wonderful kind of experience. Walt [Disney] personally took us, Sonny Burke and me, to the storyboard and said, ‘I want you to just choose where you think there should be a song.’ It was one of the most wonderful writing experiences I have ever had.”
Speaking from her Bel Air home, Lee seems to enjoy describing the songwriting process. Over the years her collaborators included her late husband Dave Barbour, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“Poems and lyrics come from me like a natural flow,” she says thoughtfully. “I am kind of a secretary taking it all down as it comes out. When it is finished, I’m always kind of surprised at what I’ve written.”
“I prefer writing to the music, because I usually hear the lyric in the music,” Lee reveals. “It is kind of a subconscious process. My collaborator and I ordinarily speak about what the subject of the song will be and then wait for the order to come through the consciousness.”
This artistic flow has translated into other works not always subject to the public view, such as her painting, poetry and sculpture. About her painting, she says she belongs mostly to the impressionist school. “I don’t think I am technically able to be as good in the realistic school.” She sells some, but usually gives most of them away to friends.
The past fifteen years have been spent dealing with a series of health problems. In the middle 1980s, a fall on stage resulted in a broken pelvis that has confined her to a wheelchair.
In 1986, Lee had double-bypass heart surgery – and six months later she was honored by the Songwriters Guild of America with its Aggie award. “It went off well,” she said, “but I did get tired.”
Despite these setbacks, Lee has retained a positive attitude about her health. She once said, “Overcoming adversity was, and remains, a central theme in my life.”
She credits this sense of optimism for getting her through various recuperation programs. “I am just extremely grateful, and marvel at what the body itself can do. It is such a wonderful thing to witness.”
Lee has always been known as an opinionated woman, but she’s wise enough to stay away from certain topics. “I’m not well enough versed in politics and you must be really well versed because we performers could be a dangerous influence. In our business, we deal with and bring on emotions.”
Here’s Lee on regrets: “I don’t know that I honestly regret anything. I know I have made a lot of mistakes, but I think, given the same set of circumstances, I’d make the very same mistakes again.”
Lee on how to live life: “To me, life is awareness, awareness of everything possible, from music trends to world problems, and the flowers in your garden. People who don’t stay aware eventually become vegetables. It would be awful not to be aware.
“Live with as much love, humour and courage as you can, and try to learn from your experience.”
On June 17, 1994, Lee got the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Singers, dubbed the Ella Award (for Ella Fitzgerald). She has made three appearances at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles in recent years, playing to overflow audiences. “I have the feeling that maybe the public thinks I am sad because I sometimes sing sad songs. I have sad times, but I have a sense of humour and love to laugh.”
Despite her long career in show business, she still strives to improve. “I do play a great attention to detail in my work, because I want to improve it, and if that makes me a perfectionist, then I suppose I am. But everybody enjoys a show better when it is done creatively.”
Today, Lee passes her time in Bel Air with friends and seems to be content with her lot in life. “I don’t go out much [except for] time spent at the hairdresser – but I entertain a lot at my home. Now that I enjoy.”